“If you want things to be different, then you have to go out and do it yourself”: the Americana legend talks about his recent collaboration with musical and romantic partner Ingunn Ringvold, and reflects on his childhood, his songwriting inspirations, and of course his time with the Jayhawks and the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers.
BY LEE ZIMMERMAN
Mark Olson might seem to some a bit of a paradox. He’s a man on a mission, trying to reconcile a troubled adolescence (one marked by the suicide of his father and estrangement from his mother) with an ongoing attempt to emancipate his emotions through music. Although a cofounders of the Jayhawks — one of the most influential bands in the then-emerging genre of Americana during the ‘80s and early ‘90s — he parted ways midway through their trajectory to care for his ailing wife, singer/songwriter Victoria Williams, and subsequently took refuge in the California desert so as to regain the purity and freedom his life seemed to lack. There, unhindered by the machinations of the music industry, he helmed the communal combo called the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, working in tandem with Williams and multi-instrumentalist Mike “Razz” Russell. Yet despite the revered status he had attained earlier in the States, the band’s early albums were released overseas, and following a succession of tours on the continent, he became better known in Europe than he was back home.
At the start of the new millennium, Olson’s role in the Creekdippers began eclipsing that of his collaborators, and following his break-up with Williams in 2005, he began putting albums out under his own name. A pair of one-off reunions with his former Jayhawks collaborator Gary Louris aside, Olson has largely turned his back on the past, and now, currently involved with Norwegian musician Ingunn Ringvold, he seems intent on simply making more music and applying it as further salve for his soul. The duo’s new album, Good-bye Lizelle, released on the German label Glitterhouse, finds him plying his trademark sound, one underscored by his yearning high-lonesome vocals and some atmospheric ambiance plied from a variety of exotic instruments, many supplied by Ingunn herself. It’s another triumph from a man who eschews fame and fortune in favor of salvation and satisfaction, fleeting qualities Olson continues to pursue for the sake of both his muse and a restless mindset.
When BLURT spoke with Olson we found him surprisingly candid and willing to discuss the sometimes troubled circumstance he’s been forced to confront. Clearly, he’s an artist whose art is an essential endeavor, as much a remedy and recourse as it is as a cause for commerce.
BLURT: Let’s start at the beginning. At the time, the Jayhawks seemed determined to carry the link between the country rock crossover of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with what would soon come to be known as Americana. What were your major influences at the time?
MARK OLSON: The biggest influences were the Flying Burrito Brothers and Sir Douglas Quintet. Later a manager appeared named Charlie Pine who played albums for me and gave me cassettes. All the usual suspects are involved! Byrds, Kinks, John Martyn, Incredible String Band, Willie, Waylon, Buddy Holly, Louvins, Beatles, Fairport… a lot of ‘60s music in general. I suppose we were opposed to the current ‘80s music of the time, but really there was some great music we overlooked in our search backwards and sideways and hanging out in hundreds of different used record stores. That is what we did for pleasure. Going on record store missions and searches, with the more obscure and far out the album, the better. We were really aficionados of small town thrift store used bins shopping sprees, followed by relaxing riverside poolroom 3.2 cold beer laughter sessions. Charlie was my friend back there.
But back to the Burritos and Sir Doug…..Both groups had great soul searching psychologically aware lyrics and harmony singing and country influences, but also soul and gospel elements, so it wasn’t so strictly country. It’s these two groups that caught my attention the first years of putting the band together. Prior to that, I had been living with my aunt and grandmother in California, and they had a bunch of ‘60s folk albums. So that was an influence. There was an album called Lucky 13 by Bert Jansch that I have not seen anywhere since those days. We went to a few local music festivals together — aunt, grandmother and me — and I met Victoria (Williams) in late ’83, early ’84, and she got to know my grandmother and aunt back then. The scene with the Long Ryder’s, Green on Red and Dream Syndicate had started in L.A. and I had been to the Lhasa Club. I went back to Minnesota basically because there was a family there. I had left to go live with my grandmother after not being able to figure things out, and in the middle of a storm, I arrived in South Dakota to meet my Mom again and told her I was going to write songs about my father. Which is what I did. Many! And I’m still at it today!
You had a troubled time growing up, did you not?
My father shot himself in 1976. My Mom found him, and her and I both went into our separate shells. It was a shell game. I cooked and cleaned for my sisters until I was sixteen and then I got a job at Pizza Hut! Bought a car and went to live with my grandmother in California in 1979 because I was unhinged about the psychic fallout.
How did you deal with it?
The way I dealt with it was to write songs. The list is long and really is quite dramatic and traumatic to start to deal with. It goes through every period and album. “Ann Jane” is a perfect example. The lyrics are exactly what happened. I had by that point been doing this type of writing for a while and I discovered by direct storytelling and confrontation I could live again. I would also put verses about this in songs I started about something else. I saw this as a way of describing memory recall in daily life and my growing interest in describing many thoughts, emotions and stories in one or two verses at the same time. I experimented with writing methods — beat, collage, romantic, negative, writing slowly, writing fast, not writing at all, just submitting ideas to memory for lyrical recall later.
Anyway, a partial list of songs that include thematic stirrings about my Dad are “Waiting for The Sun,” “Crowded in The Wings,” “Clouds,” “Two Angels,” “Take Me With You,” “Sister Cry,” “Nevada California,” “Martin’s Song,” “Clifton Bridge,” “Salvation Blues,” “Still We Have Friend In You,” “My Own Jo Ellen,” “Rosalee,” “Two Hearts,” “Over My Shoulder,” “See Him On The Street,” “Ann Jane,” “Reds Song,” “How Can This Be?” and “Keith and Quentin.” Keith was my father’s name. Even today a song like “Long Distance Runner” pertains to this theme of struggle to cope with a dynamic situation that is not understandable.
That’s a long list of songs to deal with this tragedy.
You get the idea! This is a partial list. I wrote almost every song about that, basically pretty much all the songs associated with my name and songwriting skills are a part of have a line, verse or theme directly correlating to the loss and confusion my father’s suicide created inside of me. I injected my feelings about a very tragic event into songwriting in hopes of figuring the situation out! Did I figure it out? Absolutely not.
When you went off to the desert with Victoria to form the Creekdippers, was your intention to kind of get back to basics? Your music and your new lifestyle seemed innately intertwined. Were you trying to reinvent yourself at that point? It seemed such a deliberate departure from the Jayhawks. Was that a way for you to distance yourself from that whole scene?
My intention was to start my life. I had been hijacked. I started a band. I arrived there ten years later not being included in any of the financial and other basic decisions a band makes. The decisions were being made by Gary, our A&R guy, management, the booking agent and others. So rather than lie to myself, I started my life from that point of getting away from those people and being with people who were less controlling. I would ask questions during the studio days in Hollywood with the Jayhawks circa ’92 – ‘94 and was told the answers to my questions had something to do with Chinatown! I think they were referring to the movie. I continued my life from ‘95 on and never asked anymore about it. I wasn’t interested, so I never inquired about anything having to do with the Jayhawks. But I remain interested in the songs I wrote. They are beautiful. They are for my father. I will see him and my grandparents again one day. I will have something to show them. I will show them my songs, and with my songs, how much I loved them.
What sort of inspiration and satisfaction did you get from living out there in the desert? How did it affect your psyche? Did you find a new contentment? Did you ever feel like you had distanced yourself from the biz and from your fans, or did you feel like you were getting closer to something more important?
We worked hard outdoors in the sun and we still do today. I had dairy farmers in my family, so I found out after growing up in the city that I liked to be out in nature at the dawn hour. The desert is brutal, really. You can tell what killed an animal because they basically lay down next to what killed them. It is easy to tell good-hearted people from bad in the bright light.
I’m sorry to be so black and white; I understand leaving out shades of grey is incorrect in this age, but there are things that are truly scary here. I would not recommend it. But it is affordable. Really, I would rather live in a well-watered river valley in Nebraska, but I like so many people here, so I stay. I think at some point you have to conclude that my motives are of a personal nature as far as music is concerned. They revolve around my themes that I gather from life and the intersection of my search for my father and the great love I have for the sound of djembe, electric guitar, harmony singing… the joy of playing music really!
If I’m theorizing too much or getting too philosophical let me know
No, it’s just fine. So how did your solo albums evolve out of your tenure with the Creekdippers? What elements did you keep, and what new elements were you able to bring to the table?
My Own Jo Ellen  and December’s Child  are in fact solo albums. I was completely steering the Creekdippers ship at that point and doing all the writing and lead work. The first three Creekdippers albums came out for the first time in France as a nice compilation called Creekdippin’. This represents the trio of Vic, Razz and I. That album contains the early, cool Creekdippers songs and performances – “She Picks The Violets,” “Flowering Trees,” “Run With The Ponies”… We created effects without pedals! Then Glitterhouse put out My Own Jo Ellen and December’ Child, and those albums, along with a bunch of touring all over the continent, helped get us gigs to this day. What followed was constant touring and more albums. Then Salvation Blues  and Many Colored Kite .
There really is no evolution out of or away from or into something that is changing except life around us and the themes that haunt us. I am constantly on the same path. I vary the types of songs on an album with many different feels and groove types. I vary the instruments, adding many different instruments, sounds and varied performance recordings. I’m interested in location and outdoor field recording technique. I started this with the Creekdippers and now I am much more proficient with field recordings. I keep on the themes of my father and Midwest class struggle. When punk bands ruled in Minnesota, I started a folk country band. When minutia pro tool recording is everywhere, I’m interested in field recording. It’s because you have to find an opening!!! My dad was the Minnesota State Wrestling Champion. He did it by searching, probing, pushing, and then when an opening appears, pinning. He had me wrestling. Hence the wonderful Creekdippers song that appeared on [2004’s] Political Manifest, “My Father Knows Foes.” Victoria sang that so beautifully. Mike Russell and I would sit on the side of the stage and cry!
How did you meet Ingunn? Did your personal relationship evolve out of a musical relationship or vice versa?
We saw each other across a room and we were going out from that moment on nine years ago. We have a lot in common as far as our personal family backgrounds are concerned and so it really is good to find someone across the world that has more of your background and the things and ideas that you value than people right next door.
How does she inspire your music making? What sort of energy do you share between the two of you?
I always had the idea to invent new types of sounds and recordings, and we have definitely been successful with our first venture. Sylvie Simmons at MOJO put out the word early: “Good-bye Lizelle by Mark and Ingunn is a great album.” Our album Good-bye Lizelle does not sound like anything else. The first song has fifteen chords, the second has two and has Armenian instruments. The energy is dramatic and is living in now. It appears as if it’s sounding and singing like desert washed flowers of melody…joyous Fanta bottle clatter, the disassociated existential dreams of a song called “Cherry Thieves.” That is my best-ever old school harmony folk country song. I have birds singing on it from recording them outdoors. “Running Circles” is a moody poetic Armenian eastern jam with two chords using the Qanon. “Lizelle Djan” has fifteen chords that all flow together in perfect order, topped with a “60s harpsichord. The album cooks.
Tell us about the recording of Good-bye Lizelle. Where was it recorded?
Ingunn and I basically play all the tracks. We did it on a portable movie recorder bouncing to overdub onto another device. There is no ProTool editing, just final mixing. There are other musicians that add touches. We spent time in Armenia with an American charity group called the Paros Foundation. Ingunn played the Qanon and I played the drum. We have three different instrumental set-ups that we go through in our live show. Then drummer Danny Frankel and guitarist Neal Casal added their tracks back at home in California. The reason we were recording in far out places is that Ingunn and I waited in the visa line for five years and you have to stay out of the country while you wait. Today’s modern air travel is very affordable. Armenian people are very strong and well educated and they took us into their hearts and taught us many things about life, friends and music. We came back from there profoundly changed. How? I don’t care about people that treat me bad. I get the hell away from them and go on.
You spent a lot of your time during your career playing in bands, be it the Jayhawks or the Creekdippers? So do you feel liberated now that it’s your name on the cover? Do you miss the collaboration that comes with being in a group?
I don’t think or care about that stuff. I only think about lyrics and melodies and trying to keep Ingunn and I healthy and moving forward. That’s what all normal musicians think about. All this PR, booking agents, people making all kinds of dough is what it is… manipulated control to make some bucks.
Are people still coming up to you and asking you about the Jayhawks?
Nobody wants to know. I have a Facebook page. People write comments all the time. It’s always about “When are you coming back to Holland, Mark? The show was great!” or” “I love the new album, you and Ingunn sing great together.” We just played 50 shows in Europe. After the shows, we sign things and meet people. Nobody asks or wants to know [about the Jayhawks]. On the occasion that someone approaches us with a Jayhawks question, other people step in and cut them off. Ingunn and I have just sung together for 90 minutes, and then we are signing CDs and vinyl. Mostly vinyl! It’s weird to bring that old junk up directly after a show. People have 24/7 access to message bands and groups today. They don’t bring it up. There is still a sense of right and wrong and old school politeness left in the world today. [Below: an early American Recordings promotional photo of the Jayhawk]
You clearly have a very strong following in Europe. Had you spent a lot of time there cultivating this support? Why did you choose to focus your time overseas as opposed to here in the States?
I made My Own Jo Ellen and December’s Child with Glitterhouse Records out of Germany back in the early 2000s and now we’ve made Good bye Lizelle with them. They have a different business model, unlike American record companies, and they’re more socially aware and community based.
This works for me. I am against extravagant expenditures for album production and I’m against the use of giant expensive tour buses. I am against manipulated, well oiled, expensive public relations campaigns. Cars and public transportation work to bring music to audiences. So do community arts centers and union halls and churches as venues, all without overly loud production values and high-end costs. If you want things to be different, then you have to go out and do it yourself. Go plant yourself a field without genetically modified crops.
Photo Credits: top image by Mikko Pylkko; Olson and Ringvold via Glitterhouse; bottom image “Mark-olson-2010-10-23” by Håkan Henriksson (Narking) – Own work. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons